TALLHASSEE, Fla. (BP)–Florida state Sen. Ronda Storms has been surprised by the personal attacks of those who oppose her bill to protect academic freedom for public school teachers and students addressing evolution.
Meanwhile, radically different versions of the academic freedom legislation have been approved by Senate and House panels, clearing the bills for consideration by both chambers, but also raising concerns about the prospects for passage.
Although Storms told the Florida Baptist Witness she likes the new House bill, she is not optimistic that a majority of her Senate colleagues will agree. And Florida Baptist Convention legislative consultant Bill Bunkley is concerned about Senate passage.
While Storms savored approval of her bill by the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 8, in an interview with the Witness later that day she said her e-mail inbox is full of derogatory messages, some by persons with high academic credentials.
The attacks illustrate the need for her bill, Storms said.
“By and large most of the people who have contacted me [against the bill] immediately launch into personal attacks, religious attacks -– just being offensive about matters of religion -– and then making personal attacks,” Storms recounted.
With a wry grin, the Republican lawmaker added: “I usually send it back and say, ‘Thank you for impressing me with your rhetoric and proving your intelligence by resorting to personal attacks.'”
Nevertheless, Storms, who is a member of First Baptist Church in Brandon, regards the attacks as a serious matter that is being ignored even when they are made in public on major daily newspaper weblogs.
“I’ve been disappointed with mainstream media -– they have not covered [the attacks] and they could cover it if they wanted to,” she said of the “nastiness” coming from opponents of her Academic Freedom Act.
“Even on some of the [newspaper] blogs -– the things that they are saying, that they are letting them get away with, if the shoe was on the other foot they would never tolerate those kinds of attacks without turning the light on and pulling the curtain back,” Storms said.
Protecting teachers and students from similar attacks in the classroom “is exactly what this bill is all about,” she added.
Storms said she has been pleased by the progress of her bill in the Senate. As to its prospects on the Senate floor, she said on April 8, “We’re counting noses right now.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Academic Freedom Act, SB 2692, on a party-line 7-3 vote. Having previously been approved by the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee, the bill is ready for consideration by the entire Senate.
The proposed Academic Freedom Act gives an express statutory protection for teachers to present scientific information that is relevant to the full range of views on biological and chemical evolution.
During debate before the Judiciary Committee, Storms said, “The bill is needed because the new science standards present the theory of evolution in a dogmatic way.” The Florida Board of Education approved the new science standards in February after months of debate across the state in which many parents and teachers raised concerns about the standards’ treatment of evolution.
“The bill does not require any change in the curriculum,” Storms said, “and science will still be taught as a matter of law when this bill passes.”
Contrary to critics’ claims, Storms said, “the bill does not authorize the teaching of creationism or even Intelligent Design, while students will still need to learn and be tested on the aspects of the science standards, including evolution.”
Mary Bahr, a Marion County teacher who was on the committee that drafted the new science standards, spoke to the Judiciary Committee against the bill.
Bahr said she has never heard a teacher express concern about academic freedom in evolution, and the new standards’ “Nature of Science” benchmark permits “critical examination” on all matters, including evolution. Bahr also said Storms’ bill “muddies the waters” for teachers.
Senate minority leader Steven Geller, D.-Hallandale Beach, said the bill should be rejected because its intent is to “let people bring their religious beliefs into the school.” Senators should keep “that wall [of church-state separation] alive,” Geller said.
But Senate majority leader Daniel Webster, R.-Winter Garden, countered: “The point is, are we or are we not going to have academic freedom? Are we going to be able to teach without having some canned speech that we have to make in every classroom? And I think this is going to go a long way in allowing flaws in whatever theory is presented to be pointed out without fear of retribution by someone over you.” Webster is a member of First Baptist Church of Central Florida in Orlando.
Three days after the Senate Judiciary Committee action, the House companion bill, HB 1483, sponsored by Rep. Alan Hays, R.-Umatilla, was adopted in a radically amended version by the House Schools and Learning Council. Hays is a member of First Baptist Church in Umatilla.
On a party-line 7-4 vote, the panel adopted a one-sentence substitute to Hays’ originally filed two-page bill similar to Storms’ bill. The new bill amends the current statute listing of “approved methods of instruction” for public school teachers by adding, “A thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution.”
“Our teachers are already laboring under many sources of stress and criticism. This bill will allow the protection of teachers to teach their students how to think instead of what to think,” Hays told the panel.
Kim Kendall, a leading critic of the new science standards’ approach to evolution, testified in favor of the amended bill.
Kendall, a stay-at-home mom and member of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, told the council the amended Hays bill attempts to achieve what was narrowly rejected by the State Board of Education (SBOE) in February.
“It doesn’t override [the SBOE]; it simply clarifies,” Kendall said.
Rejecting criticism that the bill will allow religion in the classroom, Kendall said, “I don’t want any biology teacher teaching my kid about God.”
Courtney Strickland, director of public policy for the ACLU of Florida, said even the amended version of the bill “opens the door to the teaching of religious beliefs as science in the classroom. Calling something science does not necessarily make it science.”
Although the bill is a “less risky version,” Strickland predicted that if the bill becomes law, some teachers will attempt to interject religion. In such a case, Strickland promised potentially costly litigation.
Following the vote, Rep. Joe Pickens, R.-Palatka, chairman of the council, told the Florida Baptist Witness that the amended version of the bill was preferable to the original House bill and the current Senate bill because “it has a greater capacity to avoid litigation.”
Asked April 11 about Hays’ amended bill, Storms told the Witness: “I think the House bill will face heavy opposition in the Senate. I personally like it, but the reality is that I am not optimistic of a warm reception from the necessary majority.”
Florida Baptist Convention’s Bunkley agreed.
“While I anticipate very easy passage in the House, probably along party lines, the late shift in direction on this bill certainly increases the challenge we face to get an academic freedom bill through the Senate,” Bunkley told the Witness.
As of April 14, it was not known when the bill will be considered on the House and the Senate floors. The 60-day legislative session is scheduled for adjournment May 2.
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.